SAN JOSE -- When local students took the challenge to design human-powered vehicles, they did more than build a bicycle -- they made their futures brighter, too.

Since school started in September, two teams of seniors, majoring in mechanical engineering at San Jose State and Santa Clara universities, worked to create sustainable and practical models of alternative transportation.

"It's easy to dream up designs that you can't actually ride," said Brian Lai, student treasurer of the San Jose State University American Society of Mechanical Engineers. "So this gives us a lot of practical knowledge that can't be learned from a book."

ASME created an annual Human Powered Vehicle Contest, now celebrating its 30th anniversary, to give students a practical design experience that's also socially meaningful, said Dr. Mark Archibald, HPVC committee chair. The students are graded on design innovation, speed and maneuverability through an obstacle course.

The student designs were put to the test at the Human Powered Vehicle Contest held at San Jose State University and Hellyer Park Velodrome last month. Each team sent a male and female driver racing around the banked cycling track to test sprint speed. Then, there was a 21/2 hour endurance race -- won by cranking out the most laps around a parking-lot course -- with obstacles such as stop signs, tasks to deliver packages to simulate usefulness of vehicle, and six mandatory driver changes. Finally, judges evaluated innovative features of each entry.


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Although both teams placed in the middle of the competitive pack -- San Jose State came in 10th and Santa Clara placed 11th, out of 29 entries from the western states division -- the experience will put all the students ahead of the game when they apply for jobs.

A core crew of three San Jose State University students, Henry Chea, Alex Houlemard and Daniel Kruusmagi, worked straight through spring break to get their steel-framed recumbent bicycle ready for competition. Chea came to the team with experience from the 2011 competition. But the stakes were higher this time, he said. The bike was everyone's senior project and students get graded on their efforts.

Their finished entry was named Apollo, paying homage to NASA and the Moffett Field site originally slated for the event. The 62-pound bike featured a wraparound fairing made of carbon fiber and a retractable stabilizer to balance the bike during stops and starts. Unlike other recumbent bikes, this one sported a split chain ring for better mechanical advantage and an adaptive headlight system that shines along the driver's line of vision.

"We knew we wanted a two-wheeled bike for speed," said Houlemard, "but we studied winning bike models from previous years for successful design tips."

The Santa Clara University team recruited its own adviser to get its project rolling. Under the guidance of engineering professor and former ASME president Terry Shoup, the nine rookie competitors focused on building an affordable bike that was stable enough to traverse any kind of territory.

Their cherry-red tricycle, dubbed Cerberus after the mythological three-headed dog, earned second place overall among the seven novice teams in the contest. The group spent less than $5,000 to make the 66-pound steel vehicle out of square, easy-to-weld parts.

The team placed eighth, overall, for best innovations. Contest rules gave them five minutes to explain unique design features that included a nonstop lighting system and the ability to store energy generated by a dynamo, a friction based device set against the rear wheel and wired to four AA batteries.

The Santa Clara team also earned an award for a well-used roll bar that protected the driver from injury during speed trials on the banked track at the velodrome. And the SJSU team was recognized for hosting the event when budget cuts forced a last-minute venue change; instead of designing a bike, 12 members of the team scrambled to manage the entire event, said Jonathan Ross, SJSU student president of ASME. The overall winner of the HPVC western division was Rose Hulman Polytechnic Institute from Indiana.

Contact Elizabeth Devitt at 408-920-5064.